Feb 01 2017

I’m A Woodpecker

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Olivaceous piculet (photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons)

Olivaceous piculet (photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Smaller than a golden-crowned kinglet this bird is actually a woodpecker!

His common name, piculet, is a double diminutive of the Latin word for woodpecker, picus.  He’s distinguished from 27 other “little-little-woodpeckers” by his olive color so he’s “olivaceous.”

The olivaceous piculet (Picumnus olivaceus) moves among the trees like a nuthatch, using his tiny bill to dig out and eat ants, termites, beetles, and cockroach eggs.

He lives in a wide variety of habitats from Guatemala to northwestern Peru and is a specialty at the Esquinas Rainforest Reserve where we spent the day yesterday.

Like the golden-crowned kinglet, his name is longer than his body.

 

(photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Day 6: San Vito, Las Cruces Biological Station

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Jan 31 2017

Not Always Blue

This beautiful bird is a male red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) in breeding plumage in Costa Rica.  He’s not the same subspecies as those found in Espírito Santo (ES), Brazil.  (Alas, the beautiful video filmed at that location was deleted by the user.)

In southeastern Brazil the red-legged honeycreepers are members of the subspecies holti.  Their “type specimen,” the bird that defines them, is in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Back in 1940 when E. G. and M. L. Holt collected this bird in Espírito Santo, he wasn’t considered a separate subspecies.  Then in 1977, Kenneth Parkes determined that he is indeed unique and named him Cyanerpes cyaneus holti.   Field guides for southeastern Brazil refer back to this exact specimen at Carnegie Museum, placed here on his page in the Handbook of the Birds of the World.

Type specimen of Cyanerpes cyaneus holti, placed on his page in Handbook of the Birds of the World (photo by Kate St. John)

Type specimen of Cyanerpes cyaneus holti, placed on his page in Handbook of the Birds of the World (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Red-legged honeycreepers are common in Costa Rica, too, (subspecies carneipes) so I was looking forward to seeing this stunning blue bird while I’m here. However, I’d read on the same page (above) in the Handbook of the Birds of the World that Costa Rican males molt from blue to green right after the breeding season:

“In Costa Rica, male acquires eclipse plumage mostly between about Jul and Oct, and for the last few months of year almost all adult males are in eclipse; males in some stage of greenish “transition” plumage present in every month except Mar–May, when breeding.”

Oh no! Not always blue? What if they are all green like this?

Fortunately the males are very blue right now. Whew!

 

(video by Fabricio Vasconcelos Costa on YouTube. Type specimen photo by Kate St. John)

Day 5: Esquinas Rainforest Reserve

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Jan 30 2017

Jacobins and Sabrewings

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

White-necked jacobin, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-necked jacobin, Costa Rica (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Hummingbirds!  Costa Rica has 50 species plus four extremely rare ones.  All of them are year round residents except for one:  our own ruby-throated hummingbird.

This makes it hard to pick two hummingbirds to highlight during my trip so I’ll go with two that have exotic names.

The white-necked jacobin (Florisuga mellivora) is a medium sized hummingbird that forages in wet lowlands and foothills to 3,300 feet.  As with other hummers his name is based on his appearance.  “White-necked” comes from his white neck patch.  “Jacobin” refers to his hood, similar to that of Dominican friars. (Click here to see.)

Why isn’t he called a “white-necked Dominican?”  Well, Jacobin was the French name for the Dominicans because their monastery was attached to the Church of Saint-Jacques in Paris.  Unfortunately a political movement wiped out that innocent meaning.  During the French Revolution a group of radicals met at the Dominican monastery to plan their Reign of Terror.  The Jacobins terrorized France from 1792 to 1794.

At six inches long the violet sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus) is the largest hummingbird in Central America.  Common from 3,300 to 7,900 feet, some descend to lower elevations at this time of year.

Violet sabrewing, Costa Rica (photo by Sonja Pauen via Wikimedia Commons)

Violet sabrewing, Costa Rica (photo by Sonja Pauen via Wikimedia Commons)

Male violet sabrewings are very violet and though you can’t see his wings in this impressive photo, they’re the reason he’s called a “sabrewing.”   Cornell’s Neotropical Birds site explains:

In the male, the outermost primaries are thickened and somewhat flattened and are curved at an angle; this combination of features resembles a sabre.

There’s one cool thing about this bird that I’ll miss, even if I see one.  During the breeding season, which corresponds to the rainy season May to October, the males gather in leks of four to twelve birds to sing and attract the females.  Wow!

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 4: Hacienda Barú Wildlife Refuge

 

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Jan 29 2017

Monkeys And Macaws

White-headed capuchin monkey, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-headed capuchin monkey, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Today we’ll be birding at Carara National Park on the Pacific Coast where I expect to see monkeys and the park’s most famous bird, the scarlet macaw.

Encountering monkeys in the wild is a new experience for me.  Because we humans are the only primates who live outside subtropical zones most of us only see primates in captivity.

At Carara we’re likely to see white-headed capuchins (Cebus capucinus), shown above. These diurnal monkeys are highly intelligent and very social, living in troops of about 16 individuals that are mostly female kin because the males move around.  White-headed capuchins love to use tools and are so smart that they can be trained in captivity to assist paraplegics.

If we hear an otherworldly roar like a dinosaur, it’ll be a mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata).  The howlers roar both day and night but can be hard to find.

Mantled howler monkey, howling in Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mantled howler monkey, howling in Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Click here to hear the howl while a woman searches for the source. Perhaps they “sound like dinosaurs” because the foley editors used howler voices in Jurassic Park.

 

Today’s highlight, though, will be the beautiful wild scarlet macaws (Ara macao).

Scarlet macaw in Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarlet macaw in Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These huge members of the parrot family have a wide range — from Central to South America — but they need a lot of territory that’s remote from humans in order to survive.  Carara provides that space.

I hope to see scarlet macaws flying, as in the photo below.  I’ve seen green-winged macaws (Ara chloropterus) in free flight at the National Aviary but seeing scarlets — and in the wild — will be a real treat.

Scarlet macaws in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarlet macaws in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

And for those of you who love reptiles, there’s a bonus.  Carara National Park has American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus).  No, they are not alligators. Click here to see.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 3: Carara National Park

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Jan 28 2017

A Falcon That Eats Bats

Published by under Birds of Prey,Travel

Bat falcon (photo by Joao Quental via Wikimedia Commons)

Bat falcon (photo by Joao Quental via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

There are more members of the Falcon family here in Costa Rica than in North America (*). Though some species are the same I expect to see at least three Life Bird Falconidae while I’m here: the yellow-headed caracara, the laughing falcon, and the bat falcon.

Like other members of the family, bat falcons (Falco rufigularis) capture birds and flying insects in mid air but they also capture bats. This earned them their name even though bats make up only 14% of their diet.

About the size of merlins, bat falcons live in open woodlands and tropical forests from Mexico to Brazil.  Because they hunt for bats they’re often seen at dawn and dusk perching high on conspicuous snags and bobbing their heads as they look for prey. Their flight is so fast and direct that they focus on eating the fastest birds:  swifts, swallows and hummingbirds (oh my!).

During the breeding season bat falcons are very vocal and sound almost like kestrels.  Hear their calls in these videos at the Handbook of Birds of the World.

So in the days ahead I’ll be checking all the bare treetops for a charcoal gray falcon with a dark face, white neck, and strikingly reddish belly, legs and undertail coverts.

Bat falcon in Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bat falcon in Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll be extremely lucky if I see one catch a bat.

 

(*)
12 members of Falconidae in Costa Rica: 3 Forest-falcons (barred, slaty-backed, collared), 3 Caracaras (red-throated, crested, yellow-headed), 1 Laughing falcon, 5 Falcos (American kestrel, merlin, aplomado falcon, bat falcon, peregrine).

7 members of Falconidae in North America: 1 Caracara (crested), 6 Falcos (American kestrel, merlin, aplomado falcon, peregrine, prairie falcon, gryfalcon).

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Day 2: Tárcoles River birding

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Jan 27 2017

Gone Birding In Costa Rica

Published by under Travel

Clay-colored thrush, the National Bird of Costa Rica, in Garita, Alajuela, Costa Rica (photo by Greg Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons)

Clay-colored thrush, the National Bird of Costa Rica (photo by Greg Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons)

This morning I’m on my way to a 10-day Road Scholar birding trip in Costa Rica.  I’m sure to see many Life Birds as well as the National Bird, the clay-colored thrush.

I’ve never been to Costa Rica but I’ve heard great things about it.  Located in Central America directly south of Ohio, Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia with a population of 4.8 million people. It’s an eco-tourism destination famous for friendly people, good food, and its many national parks and nature preserves.

Map of Central America (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Map of Central America with arrow highlighting Costa Rica (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Costa Rica has a lot of birds!  My Costa Rican field guide lists 903 species including 54 hummingbirds and 79 flycatchers. Some are endemic to the tropics while others, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, only spend the winter there.

The large number of birds is directly related to the country’s diverse habitats.  From the mountains to the sea, an elevation change of over 12,000 feet provides a wide range of climate zones.  There are temperate dry uplands and tropical rainforests where the national flower, the Guaria Morada orchid (Guarianthe skinneri), grows.

Guaria morada, orchid, the National Flower of Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Guaria morada, orchid, the National Flower of Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you’ve been to Costa Rica you’ll be curious about my route so I’ve drawn it in green on the map below.  We’ll be traveling counterclockwise from San Jose to sea level at the Pacific, then over the mountains to the 7,000-ft home of the quetzal.

Road Scholar tour route in Costa Rica (image from Wikimedia Commons, altered to show route in green)

Road Scholar tour route in Costa Rica, Jan-Feb 2017 (image from Wikimedia Commons, altered to show route in green)

I know that Internet access will be unpredictable so I’ve written all 10 days of blog posts in advance.  My husband Rick (who’s too near-sighted to go birding) is holding down the fort at home while my friend Donna Memon posts the blogs to Facebook and Twitter, moderates your comments, and responds to questions.

For now, I’m (mostly) off the grid.   I’ll “see” you when I return to my computer on Tuesday morning, February 7.

 

(photo and maps from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.)

Day 1: Fly to San José, transfer to Alajuela

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Jan 26 2017

Faster Than Expected

Emerald Ash Borer galleries in bark (photo by April Claus)

Emerald Ash Borer galleries in bark (photo by April Claus)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Back in January 2010 when I first learned about emerald ash borer, I thought we’d see a slow decline of ash trees in the Pittsburgh area.

Not so!  The bugs wiped out the ashes much faster than expected.  Within five years Schenley Park’s ash trees were dead except for the few treated with pesticides.

What did things look like as the invasion began?  Here’s a look back seven years.

Doomed

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Jan 25 2017

Perpetual Motion

 

Three wild turkeys are stuck in a rut.

They’re doing some circular thinking.

 

(video from YouTube. Click on the video to see the original)

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Jan 24 2017

A Good Long Look

Red-breasted merganser specimen, Carnegie Museum Bird Hall (photo by Kate St.John)

Red-breasted merganser specimen, Carnegie Museum Bird Hall (photo by Kate St.John)

Birds are often hard to see in the field and we usually miss the details.  In museums we can take a good long look.  Here are three examples.

Did you know that mergansers have “toothed” bills?  The projections aren’t really teeth. They’re the plates or lamellae that all ducks have, but modified for catching and holding fish.  You can see the “teeth” on the red-breasted merganser, above, at Bird Hall in Carnegie Museum.  Another cool thing:  You can see through the merganser’s nostrils.

American coots swim so much that we rarely see their feet.  This specimen shows they have unusually long toes that perform like snowshoes when coots walk on floating vegetation.

The American coot has long toes for walking on floating vegetation -- like snowshoes (photo by Kate St. John)

The American coot has long toes for walking on floating vegetation (photo by Kate St. John)

A closer look reveals two more features.  Coots feet aren’t webbed for swimming.  Instead they have lobed toes.  And how about those claws!

Close up of feet on an American coot, Bird Hall Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Close up of feet on an American coot, Bird Hall Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Western grebes have lobed toes, too …

Western grebe specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Western grebe specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

… and necks structurally similar to herons and anhingas.  With needle-like bills they could stab fish if they wanted to.

Western grebe's sharp bill, Carnegie Musuem specimen (photo by Kate St. John)

Western grebe’s sharp bill, Carnegie Musuem specimen (photo by Kate St. John)

Experts can tell the sex of this bird by the size of its bill.  Female western grebes have shorter, thinner bills.  Do you think this one is male?

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

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Jan 23 2017

Converged With The Anteater

Published by under Mammals,Musings & News

Indian pangolin, manis crassicaudata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Indian pangolin, Manis crassicaudata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last month I randomly opened an encyclopedia for the letter P and found an animal I’d never seen before.  Though he looks like an anteater he’s not related to them.

Pangolins are mammals with long thin snouts and long tails that eat ants and termites.  Instead of having fur they’re the only mammal on earth with scales.  The scales, made of keratin like our fingernails, provide protection.  When a pangolin is attacked it rolls into a ball in the same defensive posture as a porcupine.

Pangolin in defensive posture, Manis temminckii in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pangolin in defensive posture, Manis temminckii in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eight pangolin species range from Africa to Asia and Indonesia.  All are in severe decline, listed as vulnerable to critically endangered, because their meat is a Chinese delicacy and folk medicine. Even African pangolins are poached for this illegal trade.

Range map of pangolin species (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Range map of pangolin species (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Anteaters can’t help them. They’re not related.

 

Anteaters are furry mammals with long thin snouts and long tails, native to Central and South America.

Giant anteater at the Pantanel, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Giant anteater at the Pantanel, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They, too, eat ants and termites.

Giant anteater with his snout in an ant hole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Giant anteater eating insects (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Anteaters and pangolins resemble each other because they need the same tools to gather food. Similar appearance in unrelated species, called convergent evolution, is true of my favorite bird, too.

Peregrine falcons resemble hawks because they both hunt for meat, but peregrines are more closely related to parrots than to hawks and eagles.  They converged in appearance to get the job done.

 

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

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